Radiohead ‘King of Limbs’ – Review

26 Feb

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past week you will probably be aware that Radiohead are back. Last Friday morning I can guarantee that music lovers everywhere were downloading ‘King of Limbs’ in unison, devouring and judging it almost simultaneously. This is a throwback to the days before leaks and downloads when people would que on sidewalks, waiting for the record store to open so they could hear their favourite band’s new album. It’s ironic because with all due respect to Radiohead and this album, ‘King of Limbs’ is about as far from ‘event music’ as it’s possible to get.

To begin with, it nudges away from big ideas at almost every turn. They’ve not released a single, there’s no real theme (just as you think one might be developing they switch lanes) and musically this is a subdued and laid back affair. Every member of the band seemingly wants to hide in the shadows; there isn’t a guitar riff of note, Thom’s lyrics are even more cryptic than usual, Phil’s drumming is jazzy and understated – only Colin’s Bass playing really jumps out as classic Radiohead. But somehow out of these elements they make a quietly brilliant little album.

But If you were expecting another landmark release, then this just isn’t it. ‘King of Limbs’ feels like a bridge between two islands, just as ‘The Bends’ paved the gap between the grungy rock of ‘Pablo Honey’ and the more serious ‘OK Computor’ or ‘Amnesiac’ cleansed the pallate before the rather epic ‘Hail to the Thief.’ But then again we don’t know where this bridge is taking us – we may be waiting for an album that will never come. Radiohead have often talked about ditching the album format and it could be that this is just the first in a longer line of mini albums, perhaps released at shorter intervals than the four years we’ve waited for this release. If that’s the case then ‘King of Limbs’ may ultimatley leave us underwhelmed.

Anyway, what about the actual songs? Well it’s a decelerating ride, getting quieter and more personal as it progresses. Beginning with an intense electronic jam that feels like a leftover from ‘Amnesiac’, a couple of spidery guitar based tracks and a dubstep influenced semi-instrumental, the first half passes by in a slightly anticlimactic way. That’s not to say that this side is week as such, it’s just that it’s a bit too familiar, more familiar than we would have expected. Out of these four songs only the opener, ‘Bloom’, is what I’d call a classic Radiohead moment whilst ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ and ‘Little by Little’ never really take off at all.

The second half gets increasingly more intimate and increasingly fantastic; there are two songs in particular that sit alongside Radiohead’s gentler classics such as ‘Nude’, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack and ‘Last Flowers’. ‘Codex’ is a gorgeous piece of piano playing and ‘Giving Up The Ghost’ is a pastoral, folktronica style track  that feature some stunningly evocative lyrics. The second half ends with ‘Separator’ and I doubt you will read a review that doesn’t end mentioning this track’s coda where Thom repeats ‘if you think this is over then you’re wrong’. That’s because reviewers and fans will hope that this line (and the song’s title) is a hint that this album is merely the first part of something bigger. We will see…

Radiohead’s clean sheet has been maintained here and twenty years on the band are still at the top of their game in many respects, although not every respect. So how will ‘King of Limbs’ be remembered in the long run? It’s hard to judge until we know their next move because so much rests on what exactly comes next. In the cold light of day it is their weakest album since their debut but to give it that title is sort of doing the band a disservice, because this certainly isn’t a bad album. I feel it’s the calm before the storm; Radiohead are far from done and I can’t help but presume that this is another one of their stepping-stones. Still, as stepping stones go it’s a pretty beautiful one.

8/10

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